Always, Evelyn Page's range of subject
matter reflects the human presence and a full busy richness of life.
Evelyn Page has been painting, more or less continuously, for something like fifty-six years (excluding her time at art school) and has dealt with a wide range of subject matter over those years: portraits, nudes and other figure paintings, still-lifes, land, sea and townscapes.
Though her more recent work displays no loss of skill or vitality and brings with it a positive increase in brilliance of colour, despite her age (she is now eighty-three years old), there is space here only to look at a little of her early work.
During her early years as a painter Evelyn Page (or Evelyn Polson as she was before her marriage to musician Frederick Page) was tackling (if that is the right word for an action that seems to have arisen so naturally from the artist's innate personality and personal preferences) subjects which seem to have been of little or no interest to the majority of artists in New Zealand at the time. In the late 'twenties and early 'thirties, while others were painting landscapes, Evelyn Polson was painting nudes; in the 'forties, while others painted landscapes or explored the relationship between rural buildings and landscape, she painted cityscapes. Even in her portraits (a genre not noticeably neglected in New Zealand painting) one can see an attitude to personality that is in accordance with her people orientated approach to painting and to life in general. This article will examine two of the early nudes and three portraits from the 'thirties
Evelyn Polson was born in Christchurch in 1899. In 1915, at the age of fifteen, she went as a pupil to the Canterbury College of Art, which at that time combined, for its younger pupils, lessons in art with a secondary school education. Art classes included drawing from the antique, still life, and landscape classes with Cecil Kelly and (Evelyn Polson's favourite class) drawing and painting from the life, taught firstly by Richard Wallwork and later by Archibald Nicoll.
When she left the art school in 1922 Evelyn Polson
had had enough of art and decided seriously to take up music (which she had also
studied for many years). Later, however, she decided to return to painting. In
her introduction to the catalogue of her retrospective exhibition at the
National Gallery in 1970, the artist dates her return to painting as being in
In fact, despite this assertion, records show that in 1926 Evelyn
Polson exhibited several works at both the Auckland Society of Arts and the
Canterbury Society of Arts annual exhibitions, including several nudes. it is
very unlikely that these were paintings from the art school period, so it seems
almost certain that Mrs Page's memory is at fault with regard to the date of
1927. To add to the confusion she described the 'first' nude painted at Karamea
thus (in conversation with the author):
This would seem to be a description of December Morn; yet if this was indeed the first nude that Evelyn Polson painted after her period of studying music, it seems odd that it was apparently not exhibited until the Group Show in 1929 while other nudes were exhibited several years earlier.
At least three of the works exhibited in 1926 were nudes: Sunlight and Shadow, The Green Slipper and Figure out of Doors: it was the latter which for some reason caught the attention of the Patricia Bartletts of the day and the controversy about the inclusion of such a work in the Auckland Society of Arts exhibition raged in the Auckland newspapers for some weeks. This puritanical reaction in some quarters to her work did not stop Evelyn Polson from painting and exhibiting nudes. December Morn and another Nude were exhibited in the 1929 Group Show, Pohutukawa Rina was shown in several exhibitions in 1935, Sunlight and Shadow at the Otago Art Society exhibition in 1935; the landscape Broken River, Castle Hill incorporates a small nude figure; and there may well have been others, now vanished, their subject matter not revealed by their titles in exhibition catalogues.
Because of the apparent disappearance of many of these paintings, it is difficult to discuss the early nudes as a consistent body of work or to be very certain about stylistic influences. This article will concentrate on December Morn and Pohutukawa Rina, both of which are in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch.
thing is clear: that in this period of New Zealand art (i.e. the 'twenties and
'thirties) painting the nude, and even more certainly exhibiting such paintings,
was rare. In his Observations on the Canterbury Society of Arts Exhibition in
1931, d'Auvergne Boxall wrote:
A little later the same
year AJ.C. Fisher, in his review of the Auckland Society of Arts fiftieth annual
He too commended Pohutukawa Rina for 'tackling the difficult problem of the nude in the open air'.
In addition to all this, the cries of moral outrage occasioned in Auckland by Evelyn Polson's nudes suggest that visitors to exhibitions were somewhat unused to seeing such subject matter.
Indeed, Figure out of Doors was not the only early nude painting by Evelyn Polson to have had a somewhat chequered history. December Morn was in 1940 bequeathed to the Robert McDougall Art Galley by its original purchaser, Mrs E. Rosa Sawtell, and exhibited in accordance with the wishes expressed in her will.
Then in 1943 a firm of solicitors received a letter from a client requesting the removal of 'Summer Morn' [an alternative title] from public display. It was a painting for which she had modelled some 15 years earlier but was finding public exhibition of the work an embarrassment.4
As a result of this the painting was removed from the gallery walls and placed in storage until the late 'seventies, when the death of the model meant that the painting could again be shown in public.
Mrs Page's own assessment of this work as being 'in the French style, more or less a bit like Monet' is not, apart from the handling of the nude figure itself, as far astray as one might suppose. The short broken touches of paint used to render effects of light on the water and light filtering through foliage have become almost clichés of French impressionism. The broad, swift brushstrokes describing the two figures in the boat, the truncating of the boat by the edge of the picture, the downward viewpoint and the softened colour are none of them inconsistent with a possible French Impressionist influence.
At the same time, one cannot discount the influence of English painters, especially those relayed to colonial New Zealand by way of such publications as were available. It is not difficult to find painters of figures in sun dappled landscapes who might have made an impression on a young painter - the work of such artists and H. H. le Thangue and Henry Watson regularly appeared in The Royal Academy Illustrated, and Algernon Taimage's semi-impressionistic landscapes may also have had an influence.
With regard to the handling of the nude, quite apart from what the artist may have learned in the life class at the Canterbury College of Art, there were the works of painters such as Sir William Orpen, W.G. de Glehn or J.C. Dollman, all of whom painted the kind of idealised nudes whose bodies, if nothing else, are similar to those in December Morn, Pobutukawa Rina and The Green Slipper.
Here, by and large, the resemblance ends. Evelyn Polson's laying down of the forms of the body tends to be broader, more summary than that of the above painters, though the tendency that is evident, for instance, in de Glehn's work, to describe the nude figure more carefully, with more attention to precise contour and modelling than its surroundings, be they rocks, riverbanks or crumpled bedsheets, is still apparent. Furthermore, Evelyn Polson's attitude to the nude female body is a very different one: de Glehn's revelling in the depiction of sleeping nudes and the literally unconscious display of their charms: the almost inevitable (given his absorption with his 'role' as painter) self-consciousness of Orpen's models; and Dollman's interpretation of supposed Temptresses (in paintings like St Anthony and Circe) as coy, passive, insipid, almost featureless cyphers are a far cry from the easy naturalness with which Evelyn Polson approaches her nudes.
The openness and relaxed communication between the two women in Pohutukawa Rina and the even more surprising unconcern with which the clothed and unclothed women greet each other in December Morn are unusual, even remarkable. One could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of these works, that the entire female population of New Zealand in the 'twenties and 'thirties sunned itself in the nude all summer long, without a trace of self-consciousness. This is not to say that Evelyn Polson's nudes are unaware of their nakedness - on the contrary, there is a sense of pride in their womanly attractiveness and of pleasure in the sensations of sun and fresh air upon their bodies - but it is their pleasure, not that of the potential (male) viewer, that informs these paintings.
There is little precedent for this attitude to the nude in either New Zealand or European art. For too long the painting of the nude had been hedged about with, and morally justified by, mythological, symbolic, biblical and other didactic connotations. The motif of the outdoor nude, uncomplicated by such connotations, is a comparatively rare one. Renoir's various Baigneuses and other outdoor nude paintings are exceptions that might have been known to the artist. Laura Knight's studies for Daughters of the Sea might have proved suggestive, if in fact reproductions were available; what Evelyn Polson would have seen reproduced was the final painting itself which, in its monumentalizing and mythologizing of the heavy, self-consciously posed figures with their smooth, rounded and generalised modelling, is totally different in style and mood from any of her own work.
Several issues of The Royal Academy Illustrated contained reproductions of paintings by Henry S. Tuke of young male nudes, singly and in pairs, seated on rocks or sand on seemingly isolated beaches. Despite the covert homoerotic implications of these works and their rather academic approach to describing forms and surfaces there is a feeling of strong sunlight on rippling water and naked bodies, a placing of figures in the landscape, and a sense of relaxed relationship between the figures which may be seen as possible influences on a work such as Pohutukawa Rina.
Pohutukawa Rina shows two young women at the water's edge of a rocky beach. Both figures and the foreground rocks are dappled with brilliant patches of light, the effect of strong sunlight filtering through the foliage. Yet this broken light does not destroy or break up the forms themselves. They retain their identity as solid rounded masses, their contours firm and clear, unblurred by the variable light that falls across them. The only suggestion of form dissolving under the fall of light is around the left breast of the standing figure, where the broken brilliance of the light almost destroys the roundness of the breast and the slight concavity beneath the shoulder. But in most places the fall of light and shade emphasizes and follows curves, hollows, the line of the seated figure's back.
The clarity of the contours of the figures is achieved by, in the standing figure, silhouetting the upper part of her body against the lighter colours of the brilliantly sunlit rocks in the distance, the lower part of her body against the darker, shadowed rocks beneath the tree; and in the seated figure primarily by placing the dark mass of her hair and the rich warm tones of her skin against the intense but cool blues of the water.
This use of strongly contrasting warm and cool colours in juxtaposition is very different from the softened low-key colour range of December Morn. In the latter, the subtle range of pinks and light browns, with pale violet and blue green shadows, that is used to describe both the nude and the clothed figures, the boat, the parasol, adds a delicate warmth to the silvery greys, grey blues and whites of the water and the subdued greens and greenish browns with touches of yellow of foliage and river bank. In Pohutukawa Rina the colours are much more intense; the warm flesh colours have touches of orange pinks and orange reds and the bluish and greenish shadows on the figures are reflections of the bright blues, turquoise and violet of the water and the deep greens and greenish blues, flecked with orange, ochre, violet, white and brown of the tree above. The warm tones of the figures are echoed in the distant sunlit rocks and where light falls on the foreground; greenish blue and dark brown are used for the foreground shadows.
There is a quite marked decorative element in the latter painting, not only in the silhouetting of figures and foliage against the brightly lit background, but in the description of the branches of the tree as negative forms blotched with colour, branch shaped ,gaps' in the foliage, rather than solid rounded forms, and in the rhythmic, flickering patterning of light patches across the surface of the painting. To some extent this has meant a certain neglect of the larger rhythms of the painting (something which could not be said of December Morn or The Green Slipper).
Furthermore, the partially realised desire to describe the effects of light on surfaces and forms appears to conflict with an insistence on maintaining the integrity of solid forms. In terms of achieving some resolution between these two aims, December Morn is a more successful painting; in trying to deal, if not completely satisfactorily, with the problems of sharply, almost violently broken light and shade, Pohutukawa Rina is the more ambitious.
Throughout her career as an artist, Evelyn Page has drawn and painted portraits: portraits of women, men, children, group portraits, official portraits, portraits of friends and acquaintances - many of them well known personalities and artists. Those included in her one woman exhibition at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1982 ranged from a very early (1923) portrait in oils of her mother to a very recent (1982) pencil sketch of Bruce Mason.
Even in a small selection of the artist's portraits one can see clearly her sensitive response to personality in her sitters. Works such as Valmai Moffett, Charles Brasch and Elespie at Governor's Bay all convey very different moods.
As Angela Meeson points out, the influence of Impressionist painting is evident in the portrait of Valmai Moffett. This is less apparent in the handling of paint - which is, with the exception of the sitter's striped jacket and some of the glassware in the foreground, comparatively smooth and 'finished' - than in the use of colour, the overhead viewpoint (particularly noticeable in many of Degas's figure paintings and to a lesser extent, Renoir's) and the informality of the pose.
As in other later works Evelyn Page uses architectural elements and pieces of furniture to create a compositional focus for the figure. In this case, the door and door frame, piano keyboard, rug and table edge are the principle elements, leading our eye to the figure and serving to create a sense of spatial depth. To add to this, beyond the open door of the room in which the figure is sitting a hallway with a window is visible. This spatial articulation is not merely a formal device, but part of the very successful creation of the sense of an atmosphere, a life surrounding the person. The sitter was a musician and almost certainly a friend of the artist's. She is shown in an informal pose, seated with her arms resting on a table. Her head is turned slightly, looking up at the viewer, as if something has caught her interest.
. . . the piano on the left, piled with music manuscripts, the serious facial expression and hand resting meditatively on the base of the wine glass, speak volumes about this person. There is an end-of-day relaxation in the scene, in the overall warm colouring, the coffee percolator and wine decanter.6
The placing of a portrait figure in such a fully described three-dimensional space is unusual in New Zealand painting. The majority of portrait or semi-portrait paintings set their figures against a plain or draped background. Even in works such as Self Portrait (1915) by Raymond McIntyre or Girl in a Blue Blouse by Mina Arndt, which give some indication of an environment for the figure, that 'environment' still forms merely a flat backdrop against which the figure is placed. In H. Linley Richardson's Mrs Thornley at Titahi Bay (1931-2) the indubitably three-dimensional landscape in the background is exactly that - a background against not in which the figure is placed. There are, of course, exceptions: for instance, William Allen's F.A. Shurrock Carving the Massey Memorial (1930); or, more successful in creating both a convincingly three-dimensional, space and a sense of a familiar lived-in environment for the figures is a rather later work, The Artist's Family (1945) by F. V. Ellis.
The placing of a portrait figure in such an environment was rather more common in contemporary British portraiture, and works of this type by artists such as Phillip Connard, Morland Lewis and Gerald Kelly were reproduced in Studio magazines of the time and in the annual Royal Academy Illustrated. A work such as John Singer Sargent's La jeune Fille dans la Salle à Manger, while not strictly a portrait may well have influenced not only Valmai Moffett but also the later work Elespie at Governor's Bay, in terms of compositional organisation as well as the placing of a female figure in a familiar domestic environment. Evelyn Page manages, however, to avoid the almost offensively facile handling of the paint and the blandly sweet character of most of Sargent's female portraits.
The portrait of the poet, editor and
critic, Charles Brasch, was painted in London in 1937. In his autobiography
Brasch described the work:
Certainly the portrait is an unusually sombre one, in relation to many of the artist's other portraits. Brasch's long narrow face, his very serious almost strained expression and rather tensely locked hands, belying the apparent relaxation of his pose, give the viewer an impression of a solemn and intense human being. The very limited palette the artist has employed contributes to this impression. Apart from a dull ochre and some white in the background the colour range is entirely composed of deepish shades of blue, merging into a dull green and violet, used for Brasch's clothes, eyes, moustache, the shadows on his face and hands; and warm brown for his skin, the chair on which he sits, and his tie.
Despite the very sketchy drawing of the background and the evident texture of the brushstrokes, the brushwork in this painting is much less fluid and free than in many other of Evelyn Page's works. Short parallel strokes are used to build up blocks of colour with serrated edges - almost as though the artist has used her brush in a 'colouring in' zigzag motion. This is particularly noticeable in the treatment of Brasch's jacket, and areas of the background on the right hand side of the painting.
The Brasch portrait was painted in London during Evelyn Page's first
visit overseas, and one would expect it to be influenced by what she was seeing
at the time. As she says, European, and particularly English, art
One can perhaps see something of John's influence in the new abruptness of the brushwork, the emphasis on (even exaggeration of) eye and mouth shape to express personality, and the brooding quality of the portrait. The modelling of the face, however, is much simpler than one finds in later portraits, like that of Ralph Vaughan Williams or Charles Watson Munro.
The portrait of Brasch's cousin, Elespie Forsyth (later married to Dr
lan Prior), is of a very different character from the painting of Brasch
himself. Brasch described Elespie as
Elespie at Governor's Bay (1939) evokes a mood, the aura of a personality, rather than describing character as perceived through facial characteristics: indeed, the face in this portrait is a little blurred, as it is in the later portrait, Elespie and Family (1960). The figure is seated, a glass in her hand, at a polished round table in front of an open french window; beyond the window-opening a wall of dappled foliage forms a background to the figure. The sunlight, flooding through the window, fails across the floor and gives a slighy halo-effect to the figure, especially around the hair and shoulders.
Artless though this work might seem, in its apparently intuitive response to personality, it is in fact consciously structured in terms of colour and composition. Despite the relatively small area occupied by the figure it is made the focus of our attention by virtue of various compositional devices (not unlike those used in Valmai Moffett) and the silhouetting of the figure against the flattened and decoratively patterned foliage wall. Also, the bluegreens of the foliage and the floor, the light salmon pink of the French doors and the dull ochre of the wall and chair seat are echoed and intensified in the patches of the colour on the white dress of the sitter and in the pinkish red of her mouth as well as in the colours of the small posy of flowers. As in many of Evelyn Page's paintings shadows and reflections are used to pick up and echo major hues and to create rhythms of colour across the canvas - for instance, the light green shadow on the face, the salmon pink highlights on the table leg, the hint of green on the wall.
Janet Paul, a personal friend of the artist, describes Evelyn Page as 'a happy painter as innocent of theory as a naiad'10 and notes her 'most unusual capacity to follow her own way regardless of changes of fashion, apparently oblivious of Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism - successive tidal waves which have bypassed her islanded vision.'11While this may suggest a reason for her lack of influence on subsequent painters, this ability to 'follow her way' has resulted in a vision of freshness and individuality which should not be ignored; and one cannot but regret that so few painters have taken up the challenge of her vital and exuberant depiction of 'the human presence'.
1. Evelyn Page: Retrospective
Exhibition catalogue, National Art Gallery and New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts,
Wellington, 1970, page 7
The author of this article would welcome further information on Evelyn Page, such as details of works in private collections and any documents that might be of use in tracing the work and career of the painter.
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